Book trade is 'custodian of empathy', Scotland conference hears

Book trade is 'custodian of empathy', Scotland conference hears

The book trade is a “custodian of empathy” and plays a vital part in reminding the world of the universality of the human condition, writer and broadcaster Sally Magnusson has said.

Discussing the role of the industry during the current socio-political climate in her keynote speech at the Scottish Book Trade Conference held at Central Hall in Edinburgh on Thursday (22nd February), Magnusson said the industry is involved in an “important crusade” to counter messages of otherness and inwardness with empathy and connection.

“When all else is gone it is stories that can save us”, said Magnusson. “Ambiguity and complexity are at the heart of human condition and now more than ever we need writers to remind us of this. When George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize last year, he talked about having faith in the idea of what seems other is not other at all, really just us on a different day”.

One of the skills Magnusson said she had learnt as a writer was to harness empathy, particularly when writing a memoir about her mother’s struggle with dementia.

She said: “One heartbreaking thing about my mother’s illness was that she lost ability to empathise with others’ views of the world and her world gradually shrank to just herself. That was due to illness, but with us and our self-affirming social media groups and Whatsapp conversations, in our ever-ready to judge environment, the world shrinks around us all the same, and we have less excuse.”

Magnusson added that it was artists, novelists, poets, non-fiction writers and short story tellers who can “remind us what empathy is”.

“It’s writers’ stock and trade to imagine other lives, and to take the reader there and command them to stay and try and understand them better”, she said. “Maybe one [writer] will show us what it really feels to be Donald Trump”.

She added: “We are the custodians of empathy, the gateway to otherness. [It is writers who can show] how it feels to be someone else, or to believe something else. This sometimes horrifies us, but it is the best books that take us to these places.”

She concluded: “Long live stories, they written world and the publishers who believe in it and booksellers who press it into hands of readers, agents who help writers up and everyone else engaged in this great labour of love and faith.”

The conference - the sixth held jointly by the Booksellers Association and Publishing Scotland - drew a “record-breaking crowd” of 235 delegates, which represented a “vote of confidence” in the joint event, said Publishing Scotland chief executive Marion Sinclair.

Meryl Halls, current head of membership services at the BA and soon to be managing director, added that the joint event was evidence of industry collaboration which has “never been more needed”.

“In the current public culture’s rush to judgement with knee jerk reactions, it is all the more important that those that possess the privilege of working with words [offer more considered alternatives]” said Halls. “Publishers and booksellers can make a real difference”.

Striking a similar note, Sinclair told delegates that “despite what’s going on in the world [Publishing Scotland] is and will remain very close to Europe.”

Speaking of their respective organisations, Sinclair thanked Creative Scotland for the recent funding increase which showcased “its confidence” in the organisation , while Halls said the BA was heartened by last year’s bookshop numbers and praised the “creative and energetic” business people that run them.

“Bookshops are certainly the high streets heroes and booksellers are the trade’s heroes. They have never been more important for trade to pull together”, said Halls.

The conference also held a host of sessions for publishers and booksellers including an illustrated presentation from the founders of The Academy of British Cover Design, and sessions from booksellers Helen Stanton of Forum Books, Mairi Oliver of Lighthouse Bookshop and Julie Danskin of Golden Hare.